Liberty University, the conservative Christian college founded by Dr. Jerry Falwell and currently headed by his son Jerry Falwell Jr., is suing the New York Times for more than $10 million over several articles which suggested the college’s reopening after spring break resulted in the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“In 2006, the managing editor of the New York Times was asked on national television, ‘how does it feel to be the managing editor of a paper that makes stuff up?'” the lawsuit begins. “Fourteen years later, Liberty University has the same question.”
The 94-page lawsuit alleges four counts. The first is defamation (against the New York Times and writer Elizabeth Williamson) for publishing articles directly concerning Liberty online and in print on March 29 and March 30 (along with accompanying tweets). The second is defamation (against the New York Times for an article called “This Land of Denial and Death.” It was published online on March 30 and in print on March 31. The third is defamation per se, a legal attempt to argue that the Times‘ statements were so egregious that harm can be assumed rather than proven. The fourth is civil trespass. It alleges that a Times reporter and photographer entered the campus in defiance of signs which on March 23 had been posted at all entrances to campus saying it was closed to visitors to combat the spread of the virus.
Among the claims is that the Times and its employees acted with actual malice — the legal standard which measures the defendants’ attitude toward the truth. (It does not measure hostility: people who hate one another can still tell the truth about one another.) Liberty’s rationale for that argument is that a Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr., who is cited by the Times as “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service,” does not hold that title. (Jerry Falwell said in a separate interview that Eppes was “ten miles away from Liberty” and not even on campus.) More importantly, though, what Eppes is quoted by the Times as saying is allegedly — per the lawsuit — not accurate, and the lawsuit alleges the Times knew it:
Defendants falsely reported that Dr. Eppes had told them “nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggest Covid-19,” when they knew he had told them that the bulk of the students examined had symptoms of a cold. This is why they paraphrased this part of his interview instead of quoting his actual words — even though this was the story’s lynchpin, defendants had a purported verbatim transcript of his words, and they quoted him extensively elsewhere on far less important points that nevertheless reinforced their false narrative. To have used his actual words would have utterly contradicted their claims to any reader remotely informed about COVID-19 or capable of googling.
For the same reason, they omitted entirely Dr. Eppes’ further explanation that these students were not tested for COVID-19 because they did not meet the symptomatic criteria for COVID-19 testing. This omission was necessary for defendants to spread their false narrative in a cohesive way because, if the omitted information had been included, it would have been apparent that the students did not, in fact, have symptoms that “suggest” COVID-19. This dual misrepresentation and omission created the additional false and negative impression, ultimately expressed by others quoted in the story, that Liberty not only had a COVID-19 outbreak, but was recklessly not testing students with COVID-19 symptoms.
[ . . . ]
In addition, even if Williamson [the reporter] was completely unaware of the difference between the cold symptoms Dr. Eppes described and COVID-19 symptoms, when a state health official told her that Liberty should be testing students with symptoms, she would have been alerted that her purported understanding was questionable. Yet, she made no further inquiry because Dr. Eppes had already explained that distinction to her, and her intent was to misrepresent what he said. She also, obviously, did not tell the expert, like she did not tell the readers, what Dr. Eppes had actually said because, if she had, the expert would not have been puzzled and concerned about why Liberty had not tested those students. The expert was only puzzled and concerned because she repeated to him the misrepresented account that would appear in the story.
“Dr. Eppes denied the relevant COVID-19 statements attributed to him immediately upon reading them in the story,” the lawsuit later says.
Liberty further accuses the Times of pushing a “faux deadline” for the report and of contacting its officials on a Sunday before publication when they could not adequately respond to requests for comment. (Falwell said in an interview that Liberty officials had only two hours to respond on a Sunday when no one would be at work — when “we didn’t have the information we needed to respond” — and that “this shows how devious and evil these people are.”) Per the lawsuit:
[D]efendants waited to reach out to Liberty until there would not be time for it to comment on this claim in any informed way, and then quickly published before the claimed “deadline” when defendants realized Liberty was pressing to quickly secure and provide accurate first-hand information. This faux deadline is particularly incriminating given that Williamson took the time to travel to Lynchburg (from an actual viral hot spot) and violate Liberty’s pandemic protocols excluding visitors fi~om campus, but did not bother to arrange to talk to a single school official until about an hour before publishing the story she had worked on for over a week.
The lawsuit further accuses the Times of changing the article’s headline after publication online to cover its tracks. And it takes a few shots at a Times attorney, David McCraw, who defended the article in a letter to Liberty before the lawsuit was filed:
Mr. McCraw’s hyper-technical defense indicates the defendants were carefully crafting their story to send a message they knew was not true, while not explicitly saying it because they knew they could not defend it factually. This misleading engineering is consistent with their failure to use Dr. Eppes’ actual words, their omission of his account on testing, and their after-the-fact editing of the online story to eliminate their “click-bait” claim that as students returned, “Coronavirus [did], too.” Indeed, the McCraw Letter also refers exclusively to the scrubbed post hoc headline, and ignores the original “click-bait” headline in asserting that what the story plainly said was never said.
The lawsuit also backhanded the Times‘ journalistic practices by quoting a book written by former executive editor Jill Abramson and a recent resignation letter by former opinion editor Bari Weiss.
“Thus, when defendant Williamson traveled to Lynchburg, she was not there to learn and report the facts ‘without fear or favor,’ the lawsuit reads. “She was there as a producer and director to engineer a specific fictional tale that portrayed Liberty and its President as a caricature the New York Times‘ liberal audience would love: backward, irresponsible, anti-science, responsible for getting people sick in a pandemic, and closely tied to and mirroring President Trump.”
The later article “This Land of Denial and Death” accused Republicans of “fealty to evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who dismissed the coronavirus as a plot against Trump, then reopened his university despite health officials’ warnings, and seems to have created his own personal viral hot spot.”
Here is Liberty’s request for damages:
By publishing these false statements, the New York Times and Williamson caused substantial damage to Plaintiff’s reputation, business, trade, profession, and occupation. As a direct and proximate result of these false statements by the New York Times and Williamson, Plaintiff suffered damages, including, inter alia, injury to its reputation, harm to Liberty’s prestige and standing in its field of business, and embarrassment, humiliation, and pecuniary damages, including lost business revenues and advertising and legal expenses.
Plaintiff is entitled to an award of punitive damages arising out of the New York Times’ and Williamson’s malicious, willful, and wanton, and/or reckless conduct as set forth herein.
The lawsuit issues a dollar amount demand of $10 million, plus interest, plus $350,000 for punitive damages and attorneys fees.
Jerry Falwell and his wife have spoken out to defend the university.
“The damage was horrible,” wife Becki Falwell said in one interview. “We were trending; everybody thought Jerry was murdering his students.”
Jerry Falwell said Liberty actually had “zero cases among students, faculty or staff” and “became a model for other schools to follow.”
“They picked on the wrong conservative,” he said.
Falwell said he would donate any money he wins to charities which work with people struggling with the virus.
“We want to expose the New York Times for the liars and the . . . clickbait organization they’ve become,” he said.
“We are confident that our story accurately portrayed the reopening of Liberty University and the public health concerns that the reopening raised,” said New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy. “We look forward to defending our work in court.”
[featured image by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images]
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